Unveiling a city, one story at a time
Tufts grad’s Narratively embraces ‘slow journalism’
Published: Thursday, February 7, 2013
Updated: Thursday, February 7, 2013 14:02
Building the site from the ground up
Rosenberg, who graduated from Tufts in 2005 as an English and Spanish double major and whose distinctive physical features include a scruffy bread and longish hair that he slicks into a bun, radiates the buoyant intensity of someone who is following his dreams as he details how exactly Narratively came to be.
It was back in 2008, when Rosenberg was working as a reporter at the Queens Courier, when he began to feel the itch that over the next few years would grow into Narratively. The time and space allotted to a reporter in a traditional newsroom left a gap in longform feature reporting, he thought. The gap was exacerbated by a financial crisis that was causing publications nationwide to slash reporting budgets.
“I was looking around and seeing legacy media outlets really struggling during the financial crisis, and I figured this kind of human-interest content, this rich feature reporting that can really get to the heart of what a city is all about, would continue to get thrown by the wayside,” he said.
Rosenberg at first kept his idea -— that of a purely feature-reporting publication — to himself, sometimes waking up the middle of the night to jot down thoughts in a notebook he kept next to his bed. He started to reach out to another journalists about the idea in late 2010, after he had been to South Africa and written about the World Cup for the Wall Street Journal and GQ magazine and had started to freelance for The New York Times.
With more experience and connections under his belt, Rosenberg reached out to his friend Brendan Spiegel, also a freelancer for the Times, who now serves as Narratively’s Managing Editor. Rosenberg, Spiegel and a handful of other New York-based journalists who were interested in devoting time and resources to long, in-depth feature pieces, began to meet informally at Wednesday “editorial soirees” to drink beer and further develop the idea.
“It’s tough to go in-depth and get at the heart of a story when you only have so much room, so much limited space,” Rosenberg said. “I was finding that a lot of these really talented journalists were hungry for an outlet that would allow them to do justice to some of these stories they had stumbled upon while on the beat for the breaking news stories they were covering.”
With the basic idea for the site in place, Rosenberg remained unsure of how to transform his project into a sustainable business. In late 2011, he was accepted to the City of New York (CUNY) Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, an intensive four-month program that empowered him with the nuts and bolts of how to get Narratively off the ground.
“We worked closely throughout the term, and the idea went from being an interesting notion to into something he was ready to execute on, bring into reality,” said Jeremy Caplan, Director of Education at the Tow-Knight Center.
Narratively launched in September 2012 and is still growing rapidly, both in audience and in editorial size. The biweekly contributor meetings have outgrown the bars where the team used to meet, and the group now gathers in a classroom at CUNY, Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg says he expects to publish pieces soon from places outside New York to test the waters for a potential expansion to other cities.
“While our stories take place in New York right now, they could take place anywhere. They resonate beyond the city limits,” he said. “These are stories about interesting characters, places, unknown issues that just so happen to take place in New York City, but they could take place in Berlin, in Saigon, in Chicago, in Boston.”
Not just compelling, but economically sustainable
Rosenberg and his team of editors decided in early 2012 to pursue funding for Narratively through a Kickstarter campaign that raised $56,000, or around $49,000 after fees, Rosenberg said. Narratively uses that money to pay its contributors, web developers and occasional legal fees, said Rosenberg, who added that he does not pay himself a salary yet.
The site has a multi-tiered business plan it plans to unveil in the coming months that includes, among other things, a potential yearly membership fee that would earn users access to special content and invitations to events. There are also plans in the works to produce clearly-marked sponsored content that is both editorially and commercially compelling.
“This sort of branded content can be interesting,” Caplan, who says he still speaks with Rosenberg regularly about Narratively’s business plan, said. “For example, if the Met or MoMA museum wanted to do an in-depth piece on one of their curators or a backstory of how a piece of art found its way into the MoMA: they might pay for it, but it might also be interesting.”
Narratively also plans to release e-books in the near future and is working to sign syndication deals with other publications.
Caplan said that while he does not foresee Narratively making anyone rich, he does believe in its long-term business goals.
“I don’t think it will be a billion dollar business on the order of a social network, but I do think that if they keep working at it, they will land a number of revenue streams that will sustain the site for a long period of time,” he said. “[Rosenberg]’s not looking for a mass-scale audience
he needs a niche audience that cares about his content and wants to engage in the community, and I think he can be successful.”